Magical history tour


Anthropology, Arabic, art history… the lady of this house is erudite, well-read and widely travelled and it shows at every turn

Being a landlord can be a stressful business, especially when the building you are renting out is a stunning, characterful and historic Georgian townhouse. It's a matchmaking scenario rather like that endured by a protective parent or friend, for whom no suitor makes the grade...

So, the relief that the owner of this Hastings house and ground floor shop must have felt, when Christine Shepherd walked through the door, cannot be overestimated.

Although one can imagine Christine sweeping through the door, and there being a thunderbolt moment between landlord and tenant, their actual meeting was more prosaic.

Both worked in the world of interior decoration; Christine with a stall in Spitalfields Market, as founder of The Kula interiors company, and Lucian as a partner in the art and antiques business Myerscough & Mairs. Either way, their professional union was sure to produce something beautiful - though beautiful by no means sums up this home on the high street in Hastings Old Town. Magical is closer to the mark.

The 'hallway', as you come in directly from the street, is the shop known as The Kula. The striking name comes from a system of gift exchange between tribes in the Trobriand Islands off Papua New Guinea, documented by Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in 1922.

And if that seems like an unusual source of name for an interiors business, it gives a hint of the flavour of the house, which has a striking sense of cultural depth coming from Christine's wide-ranging travels and interests - she has a BA in Anthropology and has also studied Arabic and organic gardening...

In the shop, classic 1940s and 50s chairs mingle with Spanish 'Fase' lamps on top of a gnarled, 200-year-old board floor, with wood-knots and worn boards creating an uneven surface where furniture refuses to sit still. Christine sometimes has to reassure customers that her chairs do not have different-length legs.

We pass through the shop, where the furniture has a mind of its own, and into the heart of the building - a towering yet narrow stairwell, which goes up five floors from the basement. A roof light at the top accentuates one's sense of looking through a keyhole in a very, very thick door, while the winding balustrade leads your gaze upwards. It's impossible to ignore the urge to explore.

Christine leads the way up to the kitchen on the first floor, where we stop for a cup of tea. A large sash window with slatted blind above and backlit herbs below, dominates the room. It feels as though the kitchen decor has been shaped over many decades, and yet Christine has only lived in the house for 18 months.

"We spent a month, decorating the house from top to bottom," she says. This included refurbishing the kitchen: the stainless steel units are 1950s originals which Christine had polished, to give a more contemporary feel, and the kitchen surfaces are reclaimed science lab worktops, cut to fit and sanded to remove copious graffiti: "Some of it was pretty bad," she laughs.

Above the units and range cooker - besides impressively organised shelves of spices and ingredients - are numerous artworks, photos and objets d'art which hint at Christine's life of travel and adventure as well as her earlier life in Greenwich and southeast London.

"The insects, masks and Medusa - which a friend of mine described as kitsch - are all from Greenwich market," says Christine. "You'll notice a recurring theme of masks," she adds. "I don't know why, I just have a thing about them."

Having grown up and worked in London for many years, in 2000 Christine had what some might call a Damascene moment: "I was a management consultant working 24/7, had no hobbies or life outside work and basically became what I did. Then I woke up one morning and thought who am I? I wanted my life back."

Unlike many people, who dream of chucking it all in and starting a new life abroad but never work up the courage, that's exactly what she did.

"I sold everything I owned and moved to Greece for six months. I then visited a friend in Marbella, but there was too much concrete... So I followed her advice and headed to Tarifa on the Costa de la Luz, Spain's Atlantic coast."

As soon as she saw the vast and virtually empty beaches of Andalucia, she knew this was going to be her home. Having worked hard for many years and then selling everything she owned, Christine was able to do "not very much", as she puts it. In fact, she studied Spanish and Arabic and organic gardening, as well as starting to write with the encouragement of a friend. It was this friend who not only encouraged her to follow her creative side through writing but also to try interior design.

"James's family owned various hotels, including the Hurricane Hotel in Tarifa, where I stayed for a couple of months."

In 2007 James first asked Christine to redo the restaurant and lounge in another hotel, the Punta Sur, and the family were so pleased with her work that they then asked her to transform the hotel's stable block into luxury suites.

"Once we agreed basic plans they headed off to Val d'Isere and left me to it," laughs Christine. To her genuine surprise, the project was a huge success: "I shocked the pants off myself!" she says, with a Londoner's lack of pretence.

After doing a host of other projects for the family, and after more than 10 years in Spain, Christine decided it was time to return home.

"There were three reasons really," she says. "I needed to work again, I missed trees and I missed speaking my own language. My colloquialisms were lost on the Spanish!"

It was a month-long visit with another of her friends, this time in Hastings, that led Christine to the Sussex coastal town.

We decide to continue our conversation while exploring the rest of the house. The layout of the tall, narrow building means that there are two rooms on each floor, larger rooms to the front, overlooking the old High Street, and smaller rooms to the back, looking out over rear gardens and roofs. Across from the kitchen is what Christine calls the lounge, furnished with a luscious, curvy, Italian suite.

Along one wall is a series of black and white Sassy Luke prints, representing literary titles and characters, such as Kafka's Metamorphosis and The Dog Woman from Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson. The artworks are slightly sinister and work well with the gun-metal grey paintwork, blackened floorboards and the 1920s copy of an antique death mask peering up through the glass of an occasional table. Light floods the room via a huge, curved sash window, helping to keep the demons at bay.

Light also shines down from the skylight at the top of the stairs, illuminating the narrow stairwell, which continues on up to the office and bathroom on the next floor. The stairs themselves are bare, dark boards, finished simply with a neutral, jute runner, cut to fit. It's a no-fuss look, which fits perfectly with this solid Georgian interior.

Just as each room in the house serves as its own gallery space, so do the walls of the stairwell... culminating with a huge, blue painting at the top of the stairs.

"I call it The Blue Man," says Christine. "I brought him back from Greece... and it most certainly counted as excess baggage," she says, before pointing out the blurred image of a skull at the foot of the painting. It's as if it were commissioned for the space, it fits so perfectly.

"I never take 'stuff' with me when I move, but I always take my artworks," says Christine. I'm not sentimental about 'things' but I love art." She admits that everything in her home, at least as far as furniture is concerned, is for sale... except for the chest of drawers in her bedroom and the two cane-backed armchairs in her office.

This is truly a magnificent space with a huge glass desk. It's a piece that 'shouldn't' work in a period home, but somehow it does, with the added bonus of making the items upon it appear to float. It also allows precious natural light to permeate the room and highlight many beautiful objects: the aforementioned cane-backed armchairs, a suede swivel office chair and a Fase lamp. There are many beautiful objects in here, and yet no sense of clutter.

Across the landing is the bathroom. Cream-painted floorboards give a lighter, less sombre ambiance as does the cool green-blue paintwork, while tongue and groove panelling culminates in a narrow shelf at chest height, that's perfect for Christine's collection of insects in resin. "They may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I love them and have collected them for years. Children seem to love them too." They're certainly a step up from the usual spider in the bath.

A few more steps for us, and we are on the top floor, which is occupied by Christine's room at the front and a cosy spare room at the back. Slightly lower ceilings up here in the top of the building give the rooms a more intimate feel, while Christine's bedroom - decorated in gold and cream - has a touch of the Hollywood starlet about it.

There is the luscious, cream chest of drawers she'd mentioned, hand-made in Spain in the 1970s, and overhead a classic and original Chaty Vallauris star burst mirror: "Originals are hard to find these days, although the style is very popular," says Christine. Over the bed is a serene picture by Donna Fleming Hall and long, golden stripy curtains break on the floor into luxurious folds.

Behind the curtain is a very chic and original alternative to voile, in a curtain of ultra-long fringing which Christine found at Wayward, the vintage haberdashery in St Leonards.

Across the landing, the spare room is slightly smaller, and serves as the perfect retreat for guests, with neat bookshelves next to the bed and an array of curious prints and paintings on the walls, from one entitled 'Before Hiroshima' to another of the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway.

Beaded tassel lamps, over and beside the bed, add a sense of luxury, as do purple velvet cushions. As a guest, you would certainly feel that your host had made every effort to make you feel at home.

Everything about this home is thoughtful and considered, rather like its occupant. It's almost impossible to imagine that Christine has only lived in the house for 18 months, it feels so unique and homely.

"This may sound big-headed," says Christine, "but I find interior design and decoration easy - and I don't get stressed, or overthink it, I just do it." Testimonials on her website, from those who have used her interior design services, back this up.

An hour spent in this quirky, original townhouse is more than enough to send you home, brimful of decor ideas, inspired by Christine's no-fear approach, and ready to take on your own interior design projects with added chutzpah. Or, you may simply want to employ Christine to work her magic. I wonder how long it took her landlord to realise that his house and Christine were a match made in heaven?

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